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Pixar goes emo

'Inside Out' sad and joyful.


IN CONTROL?: The emotions of an 11-year-old girl take shape.
  • IN CONTROL?: The emotions of an 11-year-old girl take shape.

A new Pixar movie! In the dog days of summer blockbusters, this counts as a genuine event. The latest entry from the animation studio is "Inside Out," and if it doesn't quite find the transcendent narrative register of Pixar's best films, it's still a delightful success: an imaginative romp through the workings of the human mind, full of clever gags and wacko visual stunners, not to mention a genuinely moving meditation on memory. "Inside Out" is a joyful tearjerker, a dichotomy that serves as the film's theme. If that theme can be a bit heavy-handed, well, the ride is so much fun that even the schmaltz hits a sweet spot.

The film follows Riley, a cheerful 11-year-old girl suddenly facing the first major bummer of her young life when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco (hey, some people like Minnesota!). Or, it sort of follows Riley: Much of the movie is spent inside her head, where her emotions are anthropomorphized into cute, color-coordinated characters guiding Riley's actions. There's Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger (with some nifty type-casting: chirpy Amy Poehler of "Parks and Recreation" voices the Joy character; grumpy comedian Lewis Black voices Anger).

These five work together and everyone wants what's best for Riley, but sometimes one of them takes control — jumpy Anger grabs the reins when Riley gets upset at her best friend back in Minnesota; snippy Disgust takes charge when her parents try to feed baby Riley broccoli. This is precisely the same concept, by the way, featured in a mildly amusing 1990s live-action sitcom called "Herman's Head" that apparently I was the only one to watch. The difference here is that Pixar's animation wizards allow the concept to blossom with wild, psychedelic possibility.

The film tracks two parallel storylines. We follow various mundane downers of Riley's life: She cries at her first day of school, she struggles at her hockey tryout, she squabbles with her parents. Meanwhile, the feelings "Inside" (of Riley's head, or brain, or soul, or however you want to look at it) operate in a universe rendered as an intricate and complex factory. The action begins in headquarters, where the five feelings operate the control panel (with a limited understanding of how to control things, one of the film's nice allegorical touches). Glowing orbs of memory color-matched with an emotion are created and stored; the special ones are preserved as "core memories" at HQ while the rest get shipped off to long-term memory at the end of each day. For happy young Riley, that mostly means joyful memories, but after the move, Joy finds that she's losing ground to her fellow Feelings.

The way that feelings control us, or don't, gives "Inside Out" plenty to work with in exploring the ups and downs of growing up. But the juicy stuff comes when Joy and Sadness end up leaving headquarters, getting sent out into Riley's consciousness via the chute to long-term memory. High-concept riffing and emo gags abound. They try to hitch a ride on a literal train of thought. "Mind workers" dispose of memories Riley no longer uses — piano lessons go to the dump, but they save "Chopsticks" — and continually send up an advertising jingle to headquarters as a prank, so Riley can't get the song out of her head.

The film caroms loopily between brainy concepts and cartoon goofs. There are adventures with the subconscious ("where they take all the trouble makers"), abstract thought, inductive reasoning and non-objective fragmentation. There's also a trip to Imagination Land, with a forest made of french fries, plus a Hollywood-style studio where the prima donna Rainbow Unicorn stars in Riley's dreams.

Turning consciousness into a surreal theme park is just about the ideal platform for Pixar's smart, puckish noodling. But the film doesn't settle for quips and capers. Riley's imaginary friend who cries tears of delicious candy is a hoot, but watching him get left behind in the dump, the vast depository of forgotten memories, is genuinely heartbreaking. For all of its whimsy, "Inside Out" is focused on difficult emotional terrain. Identity, family, loss, depression, growing up. The dangers of feelings running too hot — or shutting down.

In its treatment of the emotionally tricky business of being a human being, whether 11 or any other age, "Inside Out" is anything but cartoonish. A dinner scene with Riley and her parents hilariously jumps around "Inside" of them, too: (Sadness is the head honcho in Mom's head, while Anger is the top dog in Dad's), and we are reminded of how difficult it can be to communicate with the people we love, stuck with the noisy feelings in our own heads.

If I have one nit to pick, the storytelling "Out" of the heads — of Riley and her family's lives — is a bit flat. The film has a lot to say about human feelings, but less to say about the feelings of the humans depicted in the film.

That said, let's talk about our feelings: When Joy and Sadness realize how they have to work together, I felt a rush of precisely that blue warmth. In a film full of dazzling feats, that has to stand as its best trick.

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